The Windup Girl is a wonderfully imagined, impeccably detailed dystopia in which food is monopolized by companies for profit, to the detriment of the people and the Earth. Earth has lost its petroleum, so the people get their energy from massive springs wound by people in factories. Anderson Lake owns one of these factories in Thailand, but also secretly works for a “calorie company,” companies that genetically engineer food, corrupting its DNA. He is in search of illegal seedbanks containing new foods untouched by the corruption of the companies, and hopes to profit from them. He falls for Emiko, a “New Person,” or a person that has been genetically engineered for a specific purpose (hers is prostitution). The corruption of the calorie companies spreads throughout Thailand, the world, and in particular the government and the law enforcement. As Anderson fights for the seedbank, corruption is exposed, power struggles occur, and in the end, Bangkok is flooded.
A similarity I’ve noticed between many cli-fi novels is the focus on class and inequalities as a major theme, but in wildly different ways. In Flight Behavior, the under-educated people of Dellarobia’s town are less able to impact climate change than their wealthier counterparts. In Parable of the Sower, Lauren’s family is able to wall off their home from the terrifying outside world due to their wealth. In this novel, the rich control the food supply, so they control everything. The poor starve, while the rich eat all they want and profit from the hunger of those of lesser status. In fact, in this society, girth becomes a symbol for wealth, as only those with a good bit of money can afford to be fat. When Hock Seng meets The Dung Lord, he immediately notices his size and identifies him as a wealthy man. Also, when tragedy strikes, it seems as though only the poor suffer, while the wealthy can ignore the problems. Hock Seng, Emiko, and Kanya all have to deal with the violence occurring during the revolts, but Akkarat, Anderson, and Carlyle all continue to worry about profit.
While I enjoyed the world that this novel creates so vividly, I despised many of the characters, particularly Anderson Lake. The universe that is set up is completely different from our own, yet still feels very plausible. The intricate system of corruption that arises from the food supply tragedy is extremely interesting, and also very believable. However, the characters that inhabit this world are mean and amoral to the point of being unpleasant to read about. While Anderson does have some redeeming qualities, such as his affection for Emiko, his overall character, as well as those of the other rich and powerful characters, is despicable. It was particularly hard to read those scenes in which the rich characters go back to discussing money and profits while the poor are fighting for their lives and suffering just outside their bubble of privilege.
Overall, I enjoyed the ideas that this novel explored, as well as its world building, but its characters were too amoral for me to connect to the text. It is well worth the read for the universe created in it, however. I imagined the novel as a kind of alternate ending to Interstellar, where the characters are not successful in moving away from Earth, and the food supply crashes as it threatens to do in the film. For the good aspects of the book, I would highly recommend it.